Sunday, September 28, 2014

Judgment and humility

I went to a wake this week. The deceased was a former policeman and a former criminal. Yeah, both of them. He had been a crooked cop with close ties to organized crime. There were a lot of people at the wake; the man had a lot of friends. In addition to the ordinary assortment of people you see at any funeral, there were a number of rough-looking guys there. Some of them were cops. Others were criminals.

I was there to pay my respects because the deceased and I had collaborated on a book. I’m not going to give you his name because the purpose of this piece is not to promote the book. Instead I want to talk about my complicated feelings about the man, our relationship, and the judgments we make about people.

I’m a law and order guy; I have a brother who’s a cop and another brother who’s a prosecutor. We were raised in a religious household with clear-cut attitudes toward right and wrong. I’ve never felt much sympathy for criminals. And crooked cops have always occupied a particularly low place on my scale of infamy. Betrayal is a powerful aggravating factor.

When an acquaintance e-mailed me a few years ago asking if I would be interested in sitting down with a mob-connected ex-policeman who was looking for a writer to help him do a book, I said yes, with some trepidation. I had never met an actual professional criminal and wasn’t entirely sure I wanted to. The last line of the e-mail read: “He’s a nice guy.” That piqued my curiosity; we were talking about a hoodlum, weren’t we? I gave it a little thought and decided I had to at least meet him.

When I did, I was immediately hooked by his story. This was a man who had rubbed elbows with organized crime his whole life, been close to some of its most notorious figures, and protected its interests as a serving police officer. It was the type of story that shocks us and fascinates us at the same time.

My prospective co-author told it all with self-deprecating humor. I wasn’t quite sure what to make of him, but I knew that there was an interesting project here that I would be foolish to pass up. We agreed to begin work as soon as I had spoken to my agent about preparing a collaboration agreement. Over the succeeding months I got 150,000 words of interviews transcribed and cut and shaped into a book. He was frank about his own misdeeds; he was frank about the culture of corruption that he had participated in, with enthusiasm. He cheerfully admitted doing things that appalled me. He didn’t wallow in remorse but neither did he make excuses.

He was generous, funny, courteous and good-humored, if a little rough around the edges sometimes. I wound up liking him quite a bit, in spite of my scruples. I’m still not quite sure what to make of that. “A lot of criminals are charismatic,” my brother the prosecutor told me, by way of a warning against being taken in by his act. I don’t think I was taken in; I cross-checked, fact-checked, prodded and challenged him. I know he wasn’t a choir boy. But he was, as advertised, a nice guy.

That’s not the same as being a good man. I can’t say he was a good man. But I could tell he knew what a good man was, and increasingly, as he saw the consequences of the life he had chosen, including a federal prison term and half a dozen friends slain in gangland killings, he knew he could have been a better one. His father had not been a criminal, and he was haunted by the sense of having failed his father.

We sold the book, got an advance, met with the publisher and started planning the promotional campaign. The book is scheduled for release next year. On a sunny day in late August, my co-author had a severe stroke in front of his house. After lingering for a few weeks in critical condition, he passed away.

I had met his family in the course of doing the book, and I went to the wake for his wife and his children as much as for anything else. His wife knew what he was all those years, and you could call her complicit, but he loved her and they raised a family together and she stood by him when he went to jail. Their children are productive, law-abiding citizens. They loved their father, and they’re hurting. They’re entitled to mourn him, even if his life was in many ways a moral failure.

I had a grandfather who was a racist; he hated black people. That’s a moral failure, too. But it didn’t stop me from loving my grandfather. People are complicated, and we can deplore things they do while cherishing things that redeem them. We are entitled to judge people; we have to, in fact. We have to teach our children right and wrong and hold them accountable. But we should judge with humility. Scorn does not encourage redemption.

Sam Reaves

Sunday, September 21, 2014

Better together?

The Scots have voted to stay in the United Kingdom, and there seems to be a consensus, outside Scottish nationalist circles at any rate, that this was the right call. The prospect of breaking up a centuries-old nation-state at the heart of the developed world was keeping a lot of people awake at night.

Scotland is not the only place where sovereignty disputes are making headlines. In Catalonia the debate is still peaceful, if heated, while in eastern Ukraine there’s a shooting war going on over who should be in charge. Sovereignty is about who should collect the taxes and make the rules, but more deeply it’s about who commands enough loyalty to get people to risk their lives in a fight. The issues are as tangled as the populations.

The apparent orderliness of maps, with their sharp lines between different colored nation-states, obscures the messiness of real-world ethnic and linguistic groups that spill over imaginary borders and mingle in cosmopolitan cities. The idea that if you live in Spain you are Spanish and if you live in Russia you are Russian was always too simple, but the modern ethnically defined nation-state, as it emerged in the nineteenth century and gradually replaced the old feudal idea of diverse communities owing allegiance to a monarch, seemed a reasonable response to the need for large organizational units in a rapidly globalizing world.

A nation-state might be best understood as a defense alliance; when the Huns come sweeping in from the steppes, the more towns you can draw on for volunteers the better your chances are. Of course, aggression is also enabled by bringing more towns under your control; either way the nation-state was designed to consolidate power. And to wield power you need an organizing principle; a common language and culture seemed a reasonable one to adopt.

But the ethnic map is too complex and fragmented to fit with the map of consolidated power. And nobody likes being ruled by foreigners. Centralizing governments repressed regional cultures to varying degrees, leading to today’s map with a relatively homogenized France next to a restive, unreconciled Spain and the unhappy marriage of Belgium next to a fairly successfully unified federal Germany.

What’s the proper approach? Do the Scots and Catalans deserve their own country? What about the Flemish? Was the unification of Italy under Garibaldi a mistake? For that matter, is the EU a mistake? Is it possible to reverse course and go back to smaller, more homogeneous political units? If so, what happens to Britain’s national debt and the million or so residents of Barcelona who are not of Catalan descent?

I don’t have answers, but we can think about principles. One thing we can say for sure is that if we’re going to avoid more of what’s happening in Ukraine, we’re going to have to compromise; not everybody’s going to get everything they want.

There is an inherent tension between the desirability of broader global networks and the need for citizens to identify with the governments that rule them. The European Union has brought great benefits in increased trade and mobility while arousing great resentment as people sense that decisions involving their quality of life are increasingly made in Brussels rather than in their national capitals. Sovereignty requires loyalty, and bureaucrats don’t inspire loyalty. Britain can still get young men to risk their lives for Queen and country (even Scots!), but who is willing to die for Brussels?

The solution to most sovereignty disputes would seem to be some kind of federalism. But there are various models of federalism with varying degrees of success. A successful federation will accommodate local aspirations while inspiring loyalty at the federal level. Ask an American what his nationality is and the answer probably won’t be “I’m a Kansan.” The United States successfully inspires loyalty to the federation as a whole. The same is probably true of Switzerland or Germany.

The UK is not a federal state but may be moving toward that with more devolution in the wake of the Scottish referendum; protracted debates lie ahead. (Home rule for England?) Federalism may be the answer in Spain, which has granted a great degree of regional autonomy to its least contented regions but is still constitutionally a unitary state. But then the Franco dictatorship and its efforts to forcibly stamp out regionalism may be too recent for Catalans and Basques who see a better future for their countries as independent states in a federal Europe.

Which would, of course, bring its own problems of sovereignty. The hope for a peaceful resolution of sovereignty disputes rests on the degree to which democratic habits of open debate and willingness to compromise prevail. An imperfect solution can be accepted as legitimate as long as the process that gets there is seen as fair. Ultimately, sovereignty is less important than a commitment to the open society.

Sam Reaves

Tuesday, September 16, 2014

Islamic Reformation

With their mass executions of prisoners, enslavement of women, threats of genocide against non-Muslims and webcast beheadings of hostages, the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, or simply the Islamic State as it now styles itself, has established a new benchmark for savagery. These people are, as I heard it put, cartoonishly evil.

It is difficult to imagine what the ISIS leadership thinks it is accomplishing with its provocations; they have already succeeded in prodding a reluctant American administration into military action. Osama Bin Laden’s attack on New York in 2001 hardened western attitudes toward Islam and provoked a reaction that killed thousands of Muslims and radically destabilized the Middle East. ISIS appears to have concluded that another round of violent Western intervention is a good thing. Sober judgment does not appear to be a notable characteristic of jihadists.

There are many difficult calls to make in judging a proper response to ISIS. First, of course, it’s necessary to determine how great a danger it actually poses. Columnist Steven Chapman says action against ISIS will be “another unnecessary war against an overblown foe.” ISIS has established a solid base in northern Syria and swept aside feeble opposition in northern Iraq, but the question for Western leaders is how durable its reign of terror will be and to what extent it can export its violence.

Prudence would seem to dictate that the threat of murderous attacks exported from an ISIS statelet be taken seriously. Survivors in New York, London and Madrid can attest to the lethality of jihadist plots. Some kind of concerted action on the part of the civilized world is certainly warranted; Barack Obama’s attempt to organize a broad-based coalition including Arab as well as Western governments seems a sound approach. A military campaign to reverse ISIS’s territorial gains and degrade its capabilities seems achievable.

But the military effort is only the start. The long-term struggle is to win the cultural war, to defuse the appeal of jihadist ideology in a deeply unsettled world. In the West, opinion seems to gravitate toward either of two competing factions, one claiming that Islam itself is at the heart of the problem, the other apparently desperate to avoid offending Muslims by recognizing any religious element. (“They are not Muslims, they are monsters,” said British Prime Minister David Cameron.)

Of course they are Muslims, and the fact is significant. But it is also true that the latest ISIS outrages have sparked a backlash in the Muslim world, with religious leaders denouncing the group and ordinary Muslims defiantly burning the black ISIS flag on YouTube. ISIS is clearly Islamic, but that does not mean that ISIS is Islam.

The truth is that ISIS, or more generally jihadism, is the latest incarnation of utopian totalitarianism, an ideological virus that may go dormant but never dies. It just mutates and looks for a likely host.

The twentieth century saw the rise and defeat, at great cost, of two totalitarian ideologies. Fascism, a nationalist strain, was destroyed in the Second World War, and Communism, an internationalist variant, expired as a viable system at the end of the Cold War. But the totalitarian temptation is always with us, and now, in the 21st century, it comes linked to a world religion with a billion and a half adherents.

There are reasons for that, and it’s important to understand them. It’s not an adequate response merely to say, “They are not Muslims” for fear of offending constituents. Though jihadism does not invalidate Islam, the Islamic element of jihadism is not an accident.

In Europe, the idea that church and state are best separated, with religion left to the individual conscience, was a hard-won consequence of the Reformation and the Thirty Years’ War. The religious fanaticism and brutal theocracies we see now in the Muslim world would have looked familiar to any European five hundred years ago. Religious wars laid waste to Europe and religious persecution chased whole communities to a different continent before a consensus for the secular state became one of the foundations of modernity.

Islam never underwent a Reformation; the Muslim world has never internalized any concept of separation of mosque and state. “Islam is a nation,” I was told by a Palestinian friend once, an educated, tolerant, forward-looking Muslim who worked as an interpreter at a U.S. embassy. I have no doubt that he is horrified by ISIS. But the idea that Islam is a nation is a pre-modern idea, and if Muslims are to attain modernity they are going to have to find a new way to think about their faith.

That need not mean rejecting their faith; I have known enough Muslims whose integrity is obviously derived from their religious beliefs to know that Islam itself is not the enemy. But I think it’s time for the Reformation; I believe that the Muslim equivalent of the Thirty Years’ War has begun. I only hope, fervently, that it doesn’t take thirty years.

Meanwhile, jihadism attracts the same type of wayward and vicious young male that was attracted to the fascist gangs in Italy and Germany and the Bolshevik shock troops in Russia. Society always throws up a certain number of thugs, and some of them are happy to find a justification for their thuggery. Ideology has the power to make even decent people do things they wouldn’t ordinarily do, and when combined with a native penchant for violence it produces the type of man who cheerfully slits another man’s throat on camera.

These are our enemies, and they have to be fought. They will have to be defeated militarily, but just as important they will have to be discredited ideologically. And that will involve making distinctions about Islam, respecting the Islam embraced in good faith by peaceable millions while emphatically rejecting its totalitarian variety and insisting on a debate about the role of Islam in society. Modernity will come to the Islamic world; how soon and how thoroughly is yet to be determined.

Sam Reaves